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Horse Sense for Plain Farming

Book Review: The New Horse-Powered Farm by Stephen Leslie

by Shannon Berteau of Small Farmer’s Journal

Working with horses is not something you can learn exclusively through watching DVD training videos and attending workshops and seminars. These things and experiences can be very useful as auxiliary aids to our training, but they cannot replace the value of a long-term relationship with a skilled mentor, or the value of repetition in the practice of performing basic farm tasks with our horses. Working with horses on a farm is a craft and a skill and as such it is a process of lifelong learning. In fact, most of us won’t have just one mentor, but rather a series of teamsters we chance to meet who have traveled a little farther down the road than we have, and who often appear in our lives just when we have the most need for (and receptivity to) their hard-acquired wisdom. No matter how much we think we might know, we need to remain humble enough to recognize that there is always something more we can learn from our fellow teamsters – and most especially from our horses.

— Stephen Leslie in The New Horse-Powered Farm

Do you remember back to high school or college, way back maybe? Do you remember a teacher that did do some lecturing but didn’t put you to sleep? Something about the sound of their voice, or the lyrical nature of their sentence structure kept you poised and listening. Even though I have rarely heard the voice of Stephen Leslie, in reading his articles and emails over the years for Small Farmer’s Journal I have felt that he embodies this tone. Beginning his new book, The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower, I found myself delighted that I was going to get to read a whole book of this voice, instead of just a short Journal article.

This exemplary tone of his wouldn’t be that important, except for the fact that no matter how well read I am on the subject, I am not a horse owner, or a farmer (gardener with chickens?). I was nervous about gleaning the necessary information from its pages. However, his scholarly, well-educated yet not boring professorialship allowed me to delve in and explore these tools and systems with the comfort of the most well established greenhorn. From tips on getting started with horses to using the basic tools for tillage and cultivation to whole farm management, Leslie takes things one step at a time and breaks to allow for questions periodically so he knows everyone is on equal footing; true sign of a good and patient teacher.

Once into the nuts and bolts of the book the pace is surprisingly quick as he takes you through a 300+ oversized page tour crossing this vast culture of knowledge. Sections include but are not limited to: draft horse breeds, care of the workhorse, working with your horse and training the teamster, training horses, working with horses on the farm, farm fertility, plowing, seeding, infrastructure, vegetable production, cultivation systems, harvesting, hay making and economics. Whew, what a mouthful. It is a lot to cover in 300 pages. He is brief in spots but somehow thorough at the same time. I particularly enjoyed the section on caring for your work horse which I didn’t expect to be detailed yet contained useful and important information for novice horse folk as well as good advice for the sage. There is also a reference section in the back and the bountiful side bars give you the impression that each of these farmers could be called upon in a time of need with their knowledge and expertise.

He pays much respect to these individuals and I truly enjoyed their shared perspectives as well as Leslie’s political interjections. Even though they can’t even really be construed as political, more philosophical:

Everything on this planet is connected, and every action must come full circle. Small farmers everywhere are planting the seeds of hope for a more sustainable world. In the future true food security will be founded on a return to human-scale farming communities.

I am left with the impression that this book could take the place of an over-view course entitled, Horse-Powered Farming 101. As Leslie states, it is a “practical application of draft horse power for the farmer of today”. It is, as he sets out to create, a “basic tool kit of the horse-powered market garden”. If you are starting from scratch you will need to delve more deeply into many of the sections touched upon in Leslie’s book with this in mind. Also, he periodically directs readers toward the references that have previously been made available on the subject including our very own Lynn Miller, Doc Hammill, and Eric and Anne Nordell.

I think this book will serve as a useful compass, or syllabus, from which to guide many young farmers’ journeys into farming with horses. I wish them the best of luck! Thank you, Stephen Leslie, for contributing this tome to help folks in their introduction to and/or transition toward draft-powered farming.

Anita Van Grunsven, seasoned horse farmer extraordinaire says,

For a beginning farmer it has a lot of good issues to consider and I really liked the interviews with people including apprentices all the way up to experienced folk like the Nordells. This book is for kindergarten through third grade horse farming experience levels and I consider myself a third grader.

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